Who needs third parties anyway?

Aren't we the most powerful nation in the world? And isn't our economy functioning as good or better than any other over the years? Don't worry, we can agree on that, but these wonderful results in power and economy do not have too much to do with our specific form of democracy. The army is not a democratic institution: it would not function properly if it were. But, yes, it does deliver us freedom in that we do not have to dance to anybody else's tune. And the big corporations? They aren't democracies; they would not function well if they were. But, yes, they are part of a system that delivers us freedom in that most of us can buy the things we want. However, democracy is something different. It is not an economic nor a military endeavor. Democracy is all about getting the representatives elected that truly represent the population at large. And when we look around, the United States — powerful and strong like no other nation — is not at the forefront at all.

The United States can make the claim of being the longest continuously operated democracy in the world, but when thinking about it, this means that the United States has the oldest, most archaic version of democracy in place. There are actually only a few true two party nations left in the world: with among them the United States and Britain as the most prominent countries. All other democracies in the world — whether based on district elections or proportional elections — have had more than two parties in power in the last sixty years. Canada for instance, delivers a good reason why they have multiple parties despite the fact that they too are still electing officials in districts. In Canada the large group of French speaking Quebecois ensures a more diverse body in the national government. Canada's population stretched out thinly over a larger geographical area may also explain why parties have more local ties than national ties. Whether you have a preference for their politics or not, they do seem to represent the Canadian people as a whole a lot better and they always seem to look for solutions that make more people happy than either the Democratic or Republican party in the United States when they are in power.

In today's world, there are systems that are virtually identical to the American system, but with slight improvements that actually augment the level of representation a lot. The best results for the least amount of change of our system is the German system (where close to one in three elected officials is a woman). Local representatives are elected just like we do here, but in the end an adjustment is made to have the overall body closely reflect the overall vote. If seven percent of Californian voters voted for the Reform Party, the California Legislature would reflect this. Since the Germans do not have good experiences with many small parties (that handed over their centrist power to Hitler) they avoid them altogether. Germany has a threshold of 5% in place, which results in a four (currently five) party system. That is a diversification improvement of at least 100% over our California Legislature. By having four (five) parties the wishes of the people are better expressed in the elections than with just two parties.

In a four party system, a larger segment of important aspects will be addressed over a thirty year time span than in a two party system in which some important aspects will definitively not be addressed. Only when mainstream America is affected by an issue will one or both parties address certain issues.

The American third parties that are important in our two party system are the lobbyists. Money flow shows their importance best. With the two parties in control of the government's enormous money flow out, the lobbyist deliver specific money flows in to particular officials and their party. Companies, for instance, may favor the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, but often spend handsome amounts of money on both, for it is then a certain bet that they paid the next winners (at least some) money.

In a four party system, more governmental money will end up being designated for issues considered very important by third and fourth parties. Their positions are made stronger by the desires of the two larger parties to form a coalition government with one of them. Yet money does not only flow from the government to a larger variety of aspects considered important to society, the specific money flows from society towards the political parties is also more diverse and specified. In a four party system companies will not give money to all four parties; they will lobby specifically for their issues and will not pretend to cover all bases.

Being a democracy helps any economy, but having fewer democratic freedoms rather than many actually diminishes the economic benefits slightly. The difference is quite small — 0.002* — but investors are keenly aware of the smallest differences, and larger amounts of foreign investments will flow to where the benefits are greatest; hence, a multiplier effect is to be expected from this small difference. More democratic institutions means more money is moved away from what makes the most money to what people may consider necessary. Bicycle lanes explain quite clearly why the economic level is a tad lower in multiple party nations. Investments in bicycle lanes — as a compromise to woo a party into a coalition — deliver fewer economic benefits than investments in roads, but they cost money nevertheless. In another example, higher standards for the entire population, for instance in health care, costs more than a deregulated health care system with the highest standards for the rich and low(er) standards for the poor. Though bicycle lanes provide more safety and a higher health standard for all help the population have a greater life expectancy in a four party nation than in a two party nation, the economic nudge is an important argument. The United States attracts large amounts of foreign money, because the foreign investors can count on receiving a higher pay-out due to the economic edge. Though rising tides do not lift all boats, especially not when some of the boats are tied to the shore with very short ropes, the benefits are simply based on the fact that money invested in one country is not invested in another country.

Still, the actual economic benefits are so small that they are not worth the sacrifice of our democratic freedoms. You may not care too much about bicycles, but your freedom is actually increased when you can sometimes choose to bike without being afraid to be run over and killed by cars. If no bicycle lanes exist in your neighborhood, then you may feel forced to drive your car to get around — you may feel that there is no choice. A system of two parties enforces the mainstream wishes, while it restricts the overall results in our society, because two parties are themselves forced to bow to the middle segment of society. The Democratic and Republican parties spend much time, effort, and money on that little segment right in the middle of society because these people and they alone deliver the win. The two parties cannot be who they truly are because they must make a certain stance plus they must win over the majority. Both parties pull on the middle as much as they can, and while this tug-of-war system does only deliver a single winner, this winner is bent, less of an honest party than the parties in democracies with full representation.

Naturally, the parties in full democracies want to win as many seats as well, but then they have to more or less deliver what they promised as well. If they do something they completely should not have done, voters can send them next time to a place not readily available in a two party system: they can send them into oblivion. In democracies with full representation some once powerful parties no longer exist because they stopped representing the people, and the people had a real choice who to vote for next. With four parties involved in a more complex tug-of-war the direction for the next four years is not only more refined, the result of the directions are always more refined as well. And with oblivion being part of the system, these parties most certainly pay attention to the voters. Over the years Canada has become a different nation than the United States because their system happened to deliver more than two parties.

Let's quickly look at nations with a proportional system, a system that is further removed from what we have here. Nations without a threshold tend to be more liberal and/or more chaotic. Small parties can influence the process, and the laws of the land often reflect a broader need, like is the case in the Netherlands. Even though not more than four parties have been essential in the last sixty years in the Netherlands, occasionally a fifth small party did flip the majority at an important time, often with this fringe group getting something they really wanted.

Proportional elections do not necessarily mean that the politics in these nations becomes muddy and powerless. Israel is a nation, for instance, that has multiple parties (though only two tend to be in most governments), and the Israelis show that even under great duress the proportional system can function powerfully. Nevertheless, a large state like California should probably avoid having too many small parties. And why should we go for all these small parties? A basic color copier functions extremely well with just four different kinds of ink: red, blue, yellow, and black. Yet two colors won't work as well (though still better than just one color), and if we can get a system in place with four parties, we will be free from special interest domination.

Special Interest Groups

California of today stands in stark contrast to the democratic results of the Netherlands, the nation NationMaster.com ranks as the highest in the world in civil and political liberties. In California fewer groups of people seem to have tight control over either the Democratic or the Republican party. Special interest groups seem to have disproportional power in California, making the slogan have some validation that third parties do dominate the two party process. Too bad for us that these third parties are just not part of the official democratic elections. In Holland, special interest groups do have their own parties and partake on their own merits in the elections. People of the religious right, for instance, have their own political parties. The political freedom allows the more fanatic people of any breed to organize themselves in fringe parties. This does not necessarily dim Christian voices in the political process. In the last sixty years, a strong Christian party was part of the government in all but two cabinets. Where as the two parties in California are virtually owned by special interests groups — those with the loudest voices and the biggest wallets — in Holland many parties help spread out the overbearing fanatic/rich/important people — making them less overbearing because all people can organize themselves politically and give voters a real choice.


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* David Kotz, Social Structures of Accumulation, 1994.